Rising to the challenge

Sat, Nov 8, 2008, 00:00

CONNOISSEUR:What we need in lean times is a new way of eating out: lower prices and imaginative cooking, writes Hugo Arnold

HOTELS USED TO BE scary places. Then every Tom, Dick and Harry builder got in on the act and gave us a sea of nondescript edge-of-town monstrosities up and down the country. We sank into the leatherette as if it were home. Gone was any sense of grandness. What a relief: hotels are there to be used.

Even grand hotels are getting in on the act. Last year we saw the Shelbourne's ground floor morph into one huge drinking den, and now the Westbury gives us Café Novo.

Café Novo is supposed to be about us. It opens at 7am, with breakfast to eat in or take out, then runs through the day. Unfortunately, it closes at 10pm, which is a shame, as there is a paucity of good eating places after a play, a concert or a movie.

What is more, a menu with the likes of burgers, shepherd's pie, fish and chips - hake, if you're asking - and sharing plates would be just the thing.

Tumbling into a recession may well be good for those of us fond of eating out. For too long this activity has been either expensive or cheap and nasty. While a burger seems steep at €16.50 at Café Novo, €10 for both the fish pie and the fish and chips is admirable.

Meanwhile, over on Dame Lane, Le Cirque opens its three floors as a bar, food emporium and jazz club. While breakfast is not on offer, the casual approach is reflected in a menu sporting a hamburger (this time at €14), beef-and-stout sausages (€12) and chicken-and-mushroom casserole (also €12).

Although neither of these establishments is by any means unique - we already enjoy the likes of both Farmgates in Cork, Sheridan's on the Dock in Galway and McGrory's of Culdaff, in Co Donegal, to name but a few - what we have yet to see is any real innovative cooking.

During the recession of the 1980s I cooked in a London restaurant where we made money out of a lunchtime menu priced at £5 (€6).

This timely initiative had many restaurateurs gasping at the impossibility of it, but soon the country's leading chefs were rising to the challenge.

In came chicken thighs fashioned into sauces for pasta or made into mouth-watering fricassees; cheeks from fish and meat alike turned into bowls of deliciousness; the forequarters of animals braised slowly, then designed into plates that sported colour, texture and delight in equal measure.

We still seem so endlessly stuck with the same old list: chicken supremes, steak and salmon. They come any way as long as it is roasted, grilled or fried, and heaven forbid that saucing is anything other than a slick of olive oil or something creamy.

Too often the refrain from restaurateurs is that the public gets what the public demands - and we want steak. But do we really?

Alan Yau's Cha Cha Moon, in London, has a menu where all plates cost £3.50 (€4.30). Le Café Anglais has a 15-strong selection of hors d'oeuvres at £3 (€3.70) and mains - fried huss and tartar sauce - starting at £10 (€12.30). Both are packed.

And there's the rub. We need to stop wanting steak or, at least, wanting it all the time. It is an era for bacon and cabbage, topside and neck of lamb. Dare I add liver and bacon or kidneys and mash? This is real food that, when cooked with care and knowledge, offers fantastic dining at a price we can start to afford.

harnold@irish-times.ie

Le Cirk, 32 Dame Street, 01-6350056, www.lecirk.ie

Café Novo, Westbury Hotel, Grafton Street, Dublin 2, 01-6791122, www.jurys-dublin-hotels.com

Cha Cha Moon, 15-21 Ganton Street, London W1 (no bookings), 00-44-20-72979800, www.toptable.co.uk/Cha-Cha-Moon

Le Café Anglais, 8 Porchester Gardens, London W2, 00-44-20-72211415, www.lecafeanglais.co.uk